Arsenal 2 Manchester City 1
Arsenal: Nacho Monreal (71’) Alexis Sánchez (101’)
City: Sergio Agüero (62’)
Man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
It has been a difficult season for Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal’s failure to contend for the Premier League title, together with their customary elimination from the Uefa Champions League in the first knockout round, has led to numerous calls for him to step aside at the end of the campaign.
While it is difficult to accurately measure such things, it has often felt like more fans than ever before are in favour of a change in the dugout.
Not for the first time, though, Wenger has found solace in the FA Cup.
No manager has won the 146-year-old competition more often than the Frenchman, and it was where he ended his and Arsenal’s trophy drought in 2014 after they had not won any silverware since 2004.
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Only Aston Villa’s George Ramsay, between 1887 and 1920, can match the six trophies claimed by Wenger, who will be looking to become the single most successful boss in the tournament’s history with victory over Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on May 27.
Arsenal were the clear underdogs heading into Sunday’s semi-final clash with Manchester City.
Following a 5-0 thrashing of Southampton in the fourth round of the FA Cup in late January, Wenger’s men had lost seven of 13 outings in all competitions.
Their only successes in that time came against Hull City, Sutton United, Lincoln City, West Ham United and Middlesbrough.
A top-four finish in the Premier League now seemed highly unlikely, so defeat by Pep Guardiola’s City side would have essentially spelt the end of Arsenal’s season.
When Sergio Aguero broke the deadlock shortly after the hour-mark, the club’s fans probably feared the worst.
Yet Arsenal were not prepared to lie down. They demonstrated a resilience and commitment to fight back and turn the game around, as goals from Nacho Monreal and Alexis Sanchez saw them advance at City’s expense.
Wenger’s players have frequently been accused of lacking such qualities in recent months, but in many ways this was a completely atypical Arsenal performance.
City controlled possession in the first half, with Wenger’s charges – again configured in a 3-4-2-1 formation – content to sit deep and play on the counter-attack.
They committed a number of tactical fouls to disrupt City’s rhythm and prevent their opponents from building up a head of steam, while their best scoring chances at the other end came from set-piece situations.
The match became more stretched after the interval, with City losing control just as they had done at the Emirates Stadium three weeks ago when the sides had met in the Premier League, with that game ending 2-2.
Arsenal, aggressive and energetic, fought back impressively after Aguero’s opener, which came against the run of play.
The two wing-backs combined for the equaliser, Monreal turning home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross at the back post, before Sanchez poked home from close range in the 11th minute of extra time.
“When you see how big this club is, I just feel happy when our fans go home happy,” Wenger told reporters in his post-match news conference.
“When I don’t win a game I feel sad because I don’t give the people what they want. We have gone through a very difficult period. We faced adversity which made our situation more difficult, but we have shown a united response.”
Wenger was unwilling to shed any further light on his future, but this was an important victory regardless of whether or not he decides to sign a new contract.
While the FA Cup may not be as coveted a prize as it once was, Arsenal were in need of a lift after one of the most difficult periods for Wenger since he first took over at the club in 1996.
A semi-final win is not enough to change everything, but Wenger will believe it is a good place to start.